On Saturday 20th February the winner of the Portsmouth Short Story Competition was announced at a Zoom ceremony. The winning story was In The Blink Of An Eye by Karen Thomas.

 

In the blink of an eye

 

‘I am here, I am OK, I am alive. I am here, I am OK, I am alive.’

 

Eyes tightly shut, his breath shallow and heart pounding, Rafi sat hunched in the darkness, noiselessly mouthing the words, trying, and failing, to calm himself and dispel the anxiety that was threatening to consume him.

Alone. Silent. Shivering.

 

And then, bubbling up unbidden from a distant time and place, a verse from the Qur’an, some solace from before to add to his mantra… ‘He is our protector. And upon Allah let the believers rely.’

 

‘I am here, I am OK, I am alive.’

 

Too afraid to adjust his position even slightly, Rafi crouched uncomfortably, tucked in behind the unyielding plastic crates, cramp creeping through his icy limbs. His thin shirt offered scant protection against the unforgiving cold of the truck.

 

He had tried for countless nights to get to this point, finally clambering onto the aging refrigerated lorry as it slowed to round the corner, so lucky to find the door lock frayed and easy to prise open, and now, somehow, bent and bowed in its cold, dark interior. His heart rate slowed as the adrenalin coursing through his body began to dissipate. However, the panic ebbing gave way to new dangers.

 

‘Stay awake, stay awake,’ he murmured to himself, only now remembering the unthinkable rumours that spread unbounded through the camp. Determination to get to his journey’s end, to safety, so unbearably close now, pushed all thoughts of self- protection aside. For the first time in months of struggling with their unbearable incursion, Rafi finally allowed himself a memory.

 

A lullaby floated through the years like a dandelion seed.

 

His mother, her warm, dark eyes shining with laughter, was singing softly as she swept up his younger brothers in her arms and tried to place them on the brightly covered mattresses which circled the room. The curtains were billowing gently in the soft, sweet evening breeze as she laid them, still squirming, against the glossy cushions. The little ones, stomachs full and tired from the long, hot day at school were wriggling and complaining nonetheless,

‘I’m not sleepy yet! Let me stay up a little longer. Please, Maadar…’

 

They knew, of course, that their protestations were in vain. The lullaby began to work its magic, soothing and closing his brothers’ heavy eyes as his mother deftly tidied up toys and discarded clothes, the honeyed notes of the song never ceasing to fill the air as she worked, ‘Lalo bacha lalo…sleep, child, sleep’.

 

Rafi knew he couldn’t afford to succumb to the lullaby, as he had done so many times before, over so many years. Instead, determined to stay awake, he looked more closely at the scene before him, examining the memory as intently as the jeweller in Kabul who, squinting and turning his mother’s one and only small piece of family gold over and again in his hands, offered him a fraction of its true worth with a nonchalant, uncaring shrug.

 

He could see his house so clearly that he reached out to run his hands over the cool, rough walls, savouring every detail. The hazy-pink sunset was now barely warming the dusty streets of his village, as night descended. The air was thick with both the spices from the range and the echoing of the call to prayer, with the voice of the muezzin tugging at his soul, the words ancient yet familiar. Home.

 

‘Maadar’, he whispered into the darkness, suddenly becoming the child that he had not dared to be for the endless months of his journey once again.

 

His mother continued her work, softly singing still, pausing only to gently stroke a tired cheek or lightly tuck a blanket around a nodding child, gliding effortlessly around the room, her dark eyes dancing with love and laughter. The torn remains of still-warm naan bread waited patiently in baskets on the table for her to clear.

Colourful salads, coriander chutney, rice and vegetables shiny and glistening with golden oil, once piled high but now all but gone, pumpkin and aubergine merely a smear on the plate. And was that kofta? Yes, Rafi could smell the tangy sourness of the sumac now and his empty stomach gave an involuntary growl.

Rafi smiled and relaxed, it seemed, for the first time in months, drowsy with the warmth of the memories of distant home and suddenly oblivious to his cold, cramped surroundings.

 

Deep down, he knew, he really did, that it couldn’t be a real memory…food on the table and full stomachs? Left-overs, even…what luxury! No, not real. Of course he knew. His brothers, clean and fresh-faced, back from school and playing with toys and not out begging or collecting scrap from among the blackened rubble? The whole family with smiling faces, no hint of the worry and the fear? Rafi almost laughed out loud at the absurdity of it. But still, it was so soothing to sink into, to wrap himself up in the blanket of home, real or not. Rafi let himself drift and be tempted to sleep, hugging the rosy daydream, false as it was, close to him all the while.

 

And the lullaby continued, quieter, softer now, ‘Lalo bacha lalo…sleep, child, sleep’.

 

No. Something stopped him. Another memory. Real this time, unfiltered, almost too painful to recall. The wail of a woman on that last day shattered the soothing lullaby and grabbed hard at his rootless thoughts. He knew that he had to concentrate for her. Rafi shook his head, almost violently, from side to side and then, eyes tightly shut, he looked again.

 

He now saw his father for the first time, stooped and greying where previously he had always stood proud and tall, a village elder, respected and strong against the Taliban, his lined face testament to the wisdom of his years. He was standing in the open, crumbling courtyard, his back to Rafi and the single family room. As he turned slightly, Rafi could see his father’s brow was intensely-furrowed and his kind eyes were closed as he drew deeply on his cigarette, the tip glowing bright against the closing darkness.

 

‘My son, it is time’.

 

It was only then that Rafi saw the room behind him as it really was on the day he left.

 

His mother clinging to him, crying. His father quiet, too quiet, defeated even. He knew that he was unable to protect his second son, the way he still believed he had failed to protect another son, two years before. Rafi knew that this ‘failure’ gnawed away at his father’s every waking thought, like rats in the rocky gutters, destroying him little by little before his family’s concerned eyes. His brothers, wide-eyed, unsure and afraid, sitting tightly together in the darkest corner of the room, knowing in their hearts that this was the end, the beginning….

 

A sudden burst of distant gunfire shattered the bitter, inky-black night, reminding everyone of the urgency of his farewell. The thought of carrying a captured machine gun, of travelling around on rocky mountain roads on the back of a battered, smoky land cruiser, worst of all still, of firing his weapon at another human being made the blood of both father and son run cold in their veins.

 

Rafi spoke quickly, blinking back his tears. His words tumbled from his lips as he focused on his mother, unable to bear his father’s shattered features, and completely unaware that he too was now echoing the unfulfilled promises of his older brother Abdul,

‘I will contact you, Maadar, when I am safe, when I can. I promise you this. All will be well, Inshallah, by the grace of God. I am not leaving you for good. I will live. I will be OK.’

And, in the blink of an eye, everything changed. Before and after. Then and now.

 

Suddenly, a stream of harsh, bright light flooded the interior of the lorry, jolting Rafi back to the present with a visceral wrench.

 

‘What the…?’ began the driver, standing in the sidings of the breezy port, still holding the door open, the broken lock hanging, his load ready for inspection.

 

Every instinct in Rafi’s body was to run, to escape the tall figure in uniform standing in shadow next to the driver and who was now shining his heavy black torch straight into Rafi’s half-closed eyes. However, his limbs would not obey and so Rafi sat, still cowering, waiting for the blows, or worse, that would surely follow. He had come so far, only to fail at the last.

 

‘It’s OK’, said the man slowly, quietly, deliberately. ‘You are safe here’. He held out his hand and gestured Rafi to move forward.

 

‘Another one,’ he then said, speaking more quickly now and addressing the driver directly. ‘Can’t be more than fourteen, fifteen maybe. God, he must be freezing. What they have to do to get here…it’s so dangerous, it just doesn’t bear thinking about. My lad’s sixteen…can’t even make himself a sandwich or get on a train to Cosham, let alone travel half way around the world on his own.’ A frown fleetingly passed over his features at the thought of this poor boy’s ordeal and of the horrors that the depths of human nature could sink to, before he fixed an encouraging smile on his face once again, silently reminding himself to hug his lanky, protesting son when he got home from his shift at the port.

 

The babble of indecipherable words swirled around Rafi’s brain. Strange, unfamiliar, thick with vowels. Could it be English? Rafi didn’t know. It wasn’t French, though, was it? It didn’t sound right. Rafi breathed, it seemed almost for the first time since the beam of the torch jolted him from his most painful of memories, and the fresh, salty air filled his lungs with hope. The uniformed guard spoke to him once again, another jumble of words, but his smile remained and Rafi dared to believe.

 

‘Police’, he said to the border guard as he had been instructed to by the few older men in the camp, those less able to jump on to the moving lorries but still no less hopeful of a new start and safety, ‘Police. Help.’

Rafi sat in the busy, cheerfully-decorated classroom, eyes closed and head hurting. Months had passed in a moment since that first sunny spring day at the port. Winter was on its way now, bringing its damp days and long gloomy evenings, and yet he was still here, in this strange half-way life between homes. The teacher was asking the group about their hobbies.

 

Mr Holbrow was kind, well-meaning, always speaking carefully so that Rafi could even manage to follow him sometimes, the flood of sounds now ordering and forming itself into a steady stream of decipherable words. His teacher’s eyes were soft and encouraging and reminded Rafi of his father on the day that he taught his son to write his name in Pashto, Rafi’s letters shakily formed but recognisable by the light of the lantern. His mother clapped him delightedly when he had finished and his youngest brother did a little dance, unsure why but excited by the sudden burst of pride and happiness shared by the family. Rafi was so pleased with his meagre accomplishment that day but now he knew how very little his best really was.

 

Hobbies? The teacher was asking him, waiting patiently for a response. Before he left, before, before…Rafi tried to supress the legion of thoughts jostling and threatening to knock him off balance, right there and then, in a dizzying descent of pain. He looked desperately around the brightly-lit classroom for something to break his fall, before it was too late.

 

Concentrate, Rafi. I am here. I am OK. I am alive.

 

Hobbies?

 

Where were his thoughts taking him? Before he left, before, before, the whole idea of having time to do something that wasn’t work, wasn’t finding a scrap of cash or a morsel of food to share with his family, that wasn’t caring for the skinny goats that his father kept on the scrubby hillside outside the compound, that wasn’t cowering from the bullets or hiding from the threat of kidnap or conscription into a warlord’s militia…. it was just unthinkable. Then, the months of his journey, sleeping by day, travelling by dead of night along rail tracks and deserted roads, foot-sore and frightened, jumping at every shadow, fearful of everyone and everything. A child alone.

 

Hobbies?

 

But he knew enough now to know that boys did things differently here, like watching films on giant screens whilst stuffing sweets into their laughing mouths and grinning and nudging each other like idiots; carelessly playing sports or stupid, childish games; even pretending to kill each other for fun with their PlayStations and X- Boxes. How young they were, how lucky, how free and they didn’t even know it. Rafi looked up from the shiny table and sighed, unwilling to give even a tiny fragment of himself to this kind, middle-aged teacher who was smiling encouragingly with his father’s eyes,

‘I like the football.’

 

More months gone. Spring first and now the summer drawing in. More fruitless meetings at the Home Office. More arguments about his age that he scarcely understood. More unsatisfying and difficult lessons. What was the point of it all if he was going to be sent back? No nearer to the beginning of the new and secure life that he so craved, this world still so strange, Rafi sat in his lessons, listless, quiet but, in reality, on the edge of a vertiginous precipice, clinging on tightly by making himself as small and tightly-coiled as he could, so that nothing could shake him and make him tumble into the abyss.

 

Mr Holbrow was talking again, but this time calling his name. Slowly, he looked up and let the words sink into his consciousness,

‘Rafi, Rafi…you need to go to the office. The office. Now. Your social worker wants to see you. Come on Rafi.’

 

Rafi stood up slowly, slinging his school bag onto his shoulder with a frown, and wandered, head down to the office. More disappointment. More frustration. More endless waiting.

 

Everyone was so nice here and Rafi checked his thoughts a little, knowing that his parents had brought him up to be grateful and appreciative, that they would be endlessly thankful to these kind strangers for giving him a real chance at life and embarrassed at his lack of gratitude. He knew too that his teachers, his foster family, his social worker all wanted the best for him, all constantly smiled at him and comforted him and helped and encouraged him but…it took so much energy to be positive and Rafi just couldn’t see a future, no matter how hard he tried to imagine one. It was easier just to close his eyes, sink into the darkness and float away.

 

And so he sat quietly on the uncomfortable plastic chairs in the dusty corridor outside the Headteacher’s frosted glass door, eyes closed, the two voices drifting from the office in front of him barely curling into his consciousness.

 

Rafi tugged at the stiff collar of his school uniform and tried to focus on what was happening. He could just about make out three shady figures behind the door, as blurry and indistinct as ghosts. Another meeting about him and in which he could take no active part. Rafi felt his defences begin to rise once again. Really, what was the point? Then, a third voice came floating past and Rafi caught on it the faintest hint of home, of evenings around the smoky fire, of real shared laughter and of pain, and now of dangerously unspoken hope…

 

He didn’t dare look up as the door slowly opened, the fear of disappointment, of being wrong, overpowering. Eyes tightly shut, his breath shallow and heart pounding, Rafi sat hunched, this time in a darkness of his own making, unable to look.

 

And then at last, Abdul spoke, his voice breaking with his own years of loneliness and separation. The long-unexpressed terror of what he too might discover if he tried to contact home made his dark eyes brim now with tears. He blinked them away and, smiling with disbelief, urged his younger brother softly,

 

‘Open your eyes, my brother. We are here, we are safe, we are alive…we are together!’

 

And then they looked and clung to each other and looked and cried and laughed and clung and cried and looked. They searched each other’s eyes deeply for the slightest suggestion of their mother, their father, the little boys that they had left at home and that they had once been themselves and they searched again for the life that they had been forced to leave behind them.

 

And in their search, they finally found hope.